Under 24 hours from now in Cambridge, Penn men’s basketball will begin its most important stretch of the season. The Quakers face off on Saturday against Yale in the semifinals of the Ivy Tournament, and if they beat the Bulldogs, they’ll face either Cornell or (more likely) Princeton on Sunday for a spot in March Madness next week.
In order to get to that point, the Red and Blue will need a lot to go right for them — including a healthy amount of luck — but especially four key factors that will determine whether or not they can reach the coveted NCAA Tournament.
Crash the glass
The Quakers thrive in a lot of different areas compared to the other teams in the Ivy League, but one aspect of the game they struggle with is rebounding, specifically offensive rebounding. Penn ranks second to last in the Ivy League in offensive rebounds per game, opponent rebounds, rebounding margin, and are tied for second to last in total rebounds per game at 34.6.
The three teams at the top of that last metric? Cornell, Yale, and Princeton.
In order for the Quakers to knock off those squads this weekend, they’ll need to crash the glass in a way they’ve struggled to in the past. A lot of the contributions in that area will have to come from junior forward Michael Moshkovitz and sophomore forward Max Martz, who have both shown ability all season to grab a significant amount of boards, but have also had games where their rebounding prowess appeared to drop off a bit.
Against teams like Princeton and Cornell, who each rank near or at the top of Ivy League rebounding metrics, Penn will need performances in which it at least doesn’t get smothered down low in a way it can’t recover from.
Against Yale, the Red and Blue will have to fend off Matt Knowling and EJ Jarvis, the Bulldogs’ two main bigs, on the glass, which head coach Steve Donahue highlighted as being an important challenge for Penn.
Limit and force turnovers
Another area where the Quakers rank toward the bottom of the Ivy League is in turnovers. At second to last, Penn loses the turnover battle by an average of 1.15 a game, compared to Princeton winning it by 1.56 and Yale by 0.46. In the Red and Blue’s four matchups against those two teams, each game was secured by the team that won the turnover battle, and there’s little reason to believe that’ll change this weekend.
If Penn wants to be able to knock off top teams like Princeton and Yale, it’ll have to be feisty on the defensive end, forcing steals and loose balls, and on offense, not be careless with the basketball.
A lot of that burden falls on star sophomore guard Jordan Dingle, who, in large part because of his ball handling responsibilities, leads the team in turnovers with three per game. In the team’s last three games, Dingle had two season-high turnover marks at six and seven.
If the Quakers want to have any shot at making it through Sunday victorious, they’ll need players like Dingle, as well as other primary ball handlers like sophomore guard Clark Slajchert, to limit mistakes, while also forcing them at the other end.
Dingle, Dingle, Dingle
This brings up another crucial factor for Penn to win the Ivy Tournament, arguably the most important of all. So far, the keys listed have all been about areas in which the Red and Blue struggle compared to other Ivy League teams. One area, though, where Penn arguably has the upper hand is its star play. The old adage goes that in a playoff series, the team with the best player on the floor almost always wins.
Yale, Princeton, and Cornell all have some elite talent, but none have Jordan Dingle, who leads the Ivy League in scoring at 20.6 points per game, and in most situations, is the best player on the floor. Whether it’s a circus three-point shot to beat Harvard in the Palestra or putting up six 30-plus point games this season, Dingle has been Penn’s savior almost every time it hits the hardwood.
During the Ivy Tournament, Dingle can’t afford to have an off performance. In Ivy League play, when he scores 20 or more, the Quakers are 6-1. When he scores 10 or less, like he did at Yale? 0-3. For better or for worse, the Red and Blue ride or die with their star player. On the biggest stage they’ve been on all season, the Quakers will need two monster games from Dingle, and if they get them, it doesn’t feel too improbable that Penn beats Yale for the first time since January and Princeton for the first time all year.
It’s not just that Dingle needs to play well, though; he needs to be the best on the floor. In their two matchups against the Bulldogs this season, the Quakers have managed to stymie star guard Azar Swain, holding him to 12 and 15 points, respectively, across two contests on a combined 8-25 from the field. If Penn doesn’t dial up the right coverages and Swain explodes for 25-plus on Saturday, it’ll have a hard time emerging victorious.
Additionally, in a potential matchup against Princeton, the Quakers will almost certainly need a career day from Dingle, as the Tigers have one of the most efficient, if not the most efficient, scoring arsenals in the conference. Among the top six scorers in the Ivy League, three belong to Princeton: Ivy League Player of the Year Tosan Evbuomwan, Jaelin Llewellyn, and Ethan Wright. In comparison, Penn’s lone option in that group will have to carry much of the scoring burden across both potential games over the weekend.
Shoot well from three
An additional area where Dingle has to be proficient in is shooting from beyond the arc. When the Red and Blue make at least a third of their threes against Ivy League opponents, they’re 5-1. That’s no coincidence. If Penn can’t make its threes, it’ll have to absolutely dominate in the paint, which it’s been much better at recently, but probably not to the level that will beat the two best teams in the conference.
This burden to hit shots from deep falls primarily on four players: junior guard Jonah Charles, Dingle, Martz, and Slajchert. The four of them combine for over 78% of Penn’s three-point output, and the players that account for the remaining 22% probably won’t be the ones covering the burden for Penn this weekend. All four guys don’t need to have career days, but at least a few of them have to hit a sizable amount of open looks.
One key component of making a lot of three-pointers is simply luck. The Quakers have to hope that shots fall their way on Saturday and Sunday, and that can come down to simply getting a good bounce or two. Turnovers, rebounds, and who has a big day can all revolve around effort and skill, but Penn will need a lot of lucky breaks to reach March Madness as the No. 3 seed entering the Ivy Tournament.
But the Quakers certainly have a shot, and we’ll see if they can get it done this weekend, starting Saturday at 2 p.m. against Yale.